Harding stands to lose the most

January 14, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Here are the questions that will linger over Tonya Harding's career:

Did she know about the plot to whack Nancy Kerrigan's knee?

Was she involved?

She says she wasn't. The police and FBI haven't charged her.

We are supposed to believe them. You know the deal. In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. Harding isn't even implicated right now. It's possible she never will be.

But people are going to wonder. You know they are.

How could they not?

Her bodyguard was arrested yesterday, and, according to news accounts and Portland, Ore., officials, her ex-husband is under investigation. As the folks in Washington say, that's getting awfully close to the Oval Office.

And so people are going to wonder. In this age of cheap opinions and Oliver Stone and 24-hour talk, it's inevitable that the dissenting voice gets put into play. People are going to look at these circumstances and, no matter what the police say, believe Harding was somehow involved. That she knew, at least.

If it's true, she's got problems.

If it's not true, if every bit of this stuff is news to her, then she is the biggest victim of all.

Because right now she certainly is the biggest loser.

Because, suddenly, the final score in this bizarre, ghoulish affair reads like this:

Nancy Kerrigan, heroine.

Tonya Harding, career villainess.

Think about it. People around Harding were allegedly trying, however perversely, to better her life and ruin Kerrigan's. But everything has ended up backward.

Kerrigan is the sports martyr of the decade. And Harding suddenly has a reputation she will never live down.

Tonya Harding? Oh, yeah, didn't she know someone who set up the other girl to get kneecapped?

Wasn't she the one who, you know, maybe knew?

It's going to be hard, maybe impossible, for her to emerge from a shadow so dark. The damage is already there. She has every right to skate in Lillehammer, and she will as long as that remains true, but some will wonder if it's appropriate. She might be the first skater to be booed in the Olympics. She hardly cuts a sympathetic figure right now. Could you pull for her?

And it's probably the end of her as a lasting figure in skating. She can forget about the lucrative professional shows to which all the top skaters turn.

Those are feel-good shows. They can't have this kneecapping innuendo hanging around.

And you can believe these questions are going to hang around.

At any rate, it's certainly hard to envision her skating around with a Pepsi in her hand. What company is going to want her for an emblem?

If she's innocent, it's a tough penalty for hanging around with the wrong people.

If she isn't innocent, well, that'll take care of itself.

At the very least, it's going to make for an interesting Olympics.

Maybe Kerrigan and Harding will end up as roommates. That would be fun.

And what happens if Harding goes on and wins the gold medal? When she's standing there on the platform, crying, what are you going to be thinking?

That she is a courageous ice princess who overcame tremendous adversity to go for the gold? Or that people she knew whacked the other skater on the knee?

You don't have to answer.

In any case, CBS is the biggest winner. The ratings will set records.

And Harding is the big loser. Which means she might be the biggest victim.

Maybe.

There are so many aspects to this thing that defy belief.

Why did the schemers decide to have Kerrigan whacked when Harding was almost definitely going to make the Olympic team anyway?

Why did the hit man, not exactly Mr. Clever, throw the club into a Dumpster right next to the arena?

(And why didn't the police find it? Some guy did.)

But the most unbelievable thing is, simply, that it happened. That some people saw fit to go for the gold in, ah, a less than wholesome manner.

The jokes are next. You'd better believe they're coming. Leno and Letterman will have a party with this. It's almost too late already for Harding. Once you make the monologue, someone said, you're history.

That might not be fair to Tonya Harding. We'll just have to wait and see.

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